When the Cleveland Cavaliers traded their 2007 first round pick (top 10 protected) to the Boston Celtics for Jiri Welsch on February 24, 2005, they probably didn't think it would come back to bite them the way it has during the 2010 NBA Playoffs. The Celtics took that 2007 first round pick obtained from the Cavs and traded it to the Phoenix Suns for the rights to the 21st pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, Rajon Rondo.
Flash forward to more than five years later and the chants "MVP!" can be heard throughout the Garden- not for the 2004 MVP Kevin Garnett, not for 2007 Finals MVP Paul Pierce, and not for the 2009 and 2010 MVP LeBron James.
Nope, this chant was intended for Celtics point guard, 2010 All-Star, and 2010 1st Team All-Defense, Rajon Rondo, as he stepped to the free throw line to cap off his 29 point, 18 rebound, 13 assist performance- one of the greatest all-around performances in NBA playoff history, and the best since Wilt Chamberlain's on April 11, 1967 (he had Rondo by only 18 rebounds).
Clearly, this didn't happen overnight. To think, just four seasons ago (06-07) Sebastian Telfair, the same Sebastian Telfair who was an inactive for Sunday's game against the Celtics, started five more games for the Celtics than Rondo did. That offseason, Telfair was traded to the Timberwolves, along with four others and two first round picks, bringing Kevin Garnett to the Celtics before the 2007-2008 season.
Rondo was asked to quarterback a team that featured Paul Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen- the new "Big Three". Rondo was nothing but an afterthought, the guy who didn't have to do anything but feed the Big Three the rock and get out of the way. He did what he was told, averaging 10.6 points, 5.1 assists, and 4.2 rebounds in the regular season before the Celtics became 2007-08 NBA Champions. Yes, many assumed that Rondo had just been along for the ride, and would struggle on a team that didn't boast so many great players to make his job so easy.
"I think that first year, you can look at us on paper and we were decent," Garnett said. "From paper alone, people viewed us as ‘paper champs' if you want to say that. I really don't think that he was really on the radar, and I think that it bothered him a little bit. He is a very powerful person, a very competitive player. You could see even last year that he started to take steps to be better."
Rondo did improve the next season, earning 2nd Team All-Defense while finishing 6th in the league in assists per game (8.2) and 5th in steals (1.9). Through 14 games in the 2008-09 playoffs, and without Garnett, Rondo nearly averaged a triple-double with 16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 9.8 assists per game. Still, the Celtics were eliminated in the second round by the Orlando Magic in seven games.
Rondo went back to work on his game even more during the last offseason, still with a chip on his shoulder. He spent the summer with former NBA shooter Mark Price, trying to improve his jumper, while also adding pounds of muscle to his body.
"Anytime you hire people to work on certain parts of your game, if not your body, if not your mind, that's when you're really taking the next steps to evaluate and get better," Garnett said.
Perhaps having his coach and former point guard, Doc Rivers, constantly looking over his shoulder has given Rondo even more of the push he needed to take his game to the next level. There is no doubt that Rondo has had to hear his fair share of constructive criticism from Rivers.
"So probably the curse for Rondo was I was a point guard. And that may be good and probably bad at times for him as well. But Rondo, what's gratifying to me is just seeing him work. The play will come; always think that. You work hard enough, the results eventually will come for you."
And the results have come this year in a big way. Rondo has carried an aging Celtics lineup and stepped up in ways he knew he could all along. This season, Rondo averaged 13.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.8 assists, and 2.3 steals. He broke the Celtics single season assist record held by Bob Cousy and the Celtics single season steals record held by Rick Fox. He has averaged 21.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 13,0 assists through the first four games of this Cleveland series. Rondo is no longer just a smaller part of the big picture, but the biggest part of the future of this organization.
"He's grown leaps and bounds and it's only his fourth year..." Pierce said. "He's shown he's an All-Star and the more and more he stars at this level, and shows he can be a perennial All-Star, which is the next level, then maybe he can be an MVP candidate. You heard how [the crowd was] chanting that tonight. If he can sustain that type of play throughout a whole season, who knows."
That is some high praise coming from a player who knows what it's like to be considered a perennial All-Star. The respect that Pierce and the rest of the team have given Rondo has been earned over the course of the last few seasons.
"[Being a leader on a veteran team] is a little bit of a challenge," Rondo said, "but they are guys that respect me and what I do. I'm sure I wouldn't be here if they didn't want me leading this team. From day one when they made that big trade, I think seven or eight players were traded that summer. Like I said I'm here obviously for a reason, those guys trusted me, the staff trusted me and the organization did. So I'm very confident in what I do..."
"I mean, he's a point guard now that runs our team and has complete control of our team," Rivers said. "When we won it, he was still learning how to be a point guard. He was still trying to figure out how to help a team just win. Now we rely on him to win."
A team with three future Hall of Famers is relying on its point guard to bring home Banner 18? My, how the tables have turned.